Victor Klemperer was perhaps the most eloquent and academically brilliant survivor of the Holocaust. He was never sent to Auschwitz – although he was only hours away from that fate in February 1945 when the Allied bombing of Dresden allowed him to dispose of his Jewish Star – but as a philosopher, French scholar, professor, linguist and humanist, he wrote by far the most moving diaries of the Second World War.
Scarcely days pass when I do not think of Klemperer. His three volumes of diaries are a testimony to viciousness, cruelty and courage from the heart of darkness, trying (and just succeeding) to survive as a German Jew in Hitler’s Reich. But only now have I been able to obtain a translation of the one volume this fine Jewish intellectual valued most: his own short, devastating treatise on the linguistics of the Nazi regime.
He called it LTI – short for his Latin title, Lingua Tertii Imperii, The Language of the Third Reich – and it hangs like a cloak over us today, in the shadow of the new right, of east European nationalism, of racism and I suppose, of Trumpism too. And of the crisis of dictatorship in the Middle East. It shows how language can be used as a prison rather than a means to liberty, how it can wrap us in chains when we always thought it offered a path to freedom. “Nazism,” he wrote, “permeated the flesh and blood of the people through single words, idioms and sentence structures imposed on them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously.”
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